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Interview with Laura Healy, translator of Roberto Bolaño’s “The Romantic Dogs”

By Nicolle Elizabeth

This interview with Laura Healy, translator of Roberto Bolaño's poetry, is part of our month long look at international poetry and celebration of the release of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry by the editors of Words Without Borders. This interview was a collaboration between Words Without Borders contributors Nicolle Elizabeth and Ana María Correa

Laura Healy is a writer, designer, and literary translator. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where she works as the managing editor of the Harvard Review. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Nicolle: I thought it would be interesting to ask Ana Maria to translate questions into Spanish, and then re-translate the answers back, to see how our dialogue about translation through translation would, well,  translate. Laura answered us in English, not missing a beat from Ana's original questions in Spanish. 

What drew you to translating?
I'm a very slow reader because I always imagine how the writing sounds, as if I were reading it aloud in my head. When I started reading in Spanish, I found that I did the same thing, except I wanted to put it into my own words, in English. It's a really wonderful brainteaser. 

How long have you been translating?
I started translating in 2005, when I took a workshop with Forrest Gander at Brown. Their Comparative Literature department has a great option to concentrate in Literary Translation.  

When, why, and how did you discover translating Bolaño was for you?
The semester following my workshop with Forrest, I decided to take a break from school and travel around Europe. As I was working to save for the trip, I started dating my housemate, Zach, and he decided to come with me. The two of us had been reading Chris Andrews' translations of Bolaño's novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star, and when we got to Barcelona we found a collection of Bolaño's poetry, Los perros románticos. Zach's Spanish wasn't very good at the time, so he asked me to translate it for him. It ended up as my senior thesis, and Zach ended up as my husband.  

Comparando a Bolaño con los otros poetas que ha traducido, ¿cuáles son los más grandes desafíos en traducir su poesía?  En su percepción, ¿cuáles son las características principales de su poesía? 

Translation: In comparing Bolaño to the other poets you've translated, what are the greatest challenges in translating his poetry?  In your view, what are the principle characteristics of his poetry? 

One thing that is particularly challenging, or rather, impossible to translate is Bolaño's use of regional words from all over the world. Having spent long periods of his life in Chile, Mexico, and Spain, he has a truly mixed vocabulary. As far as characteristics, I think Bolaño is a master at choosing the correct genre for his work. He can tell the same story twice- once in prose, once in poetry- and in doing so, create an entirely different effect. His poetry is very distilled and fragmentary, but also very colloquial and sometimes downright sentimental. He writes so many different kinds of verse that it's really hard to classify it as any one thing. 

Hizo un trabajo muy bueno en preservar la aliteración en poemas como "Los detectives" y "Autorretrato a los viente años".  ¿Hubieron casos donde tenía que compensar el sonido o el compás y ponerlos en otros lugares?  ¿Hubo algo que tenía que sacrificar?

Translation: You did a great job of preserving the alliteration in poems like "The Detectives" and "Self Portrait at Twenty Years".  Were there cases where you had to compensate the sound or rhythm and place them elsewhere?  Was there something you had to sacrifice?

The last 2 lines of "Roadster" will drive me crazy for the rest of my life! I so badly wanted to make them rhyme, as they do in the Spanish, but was never able to come up with a satisfying solution. Luckily, I came out with an unexpected rhyme in "In the Reading Room of Hell," which I like to think makes up for it, at least a little. The musicality of the vowel sounds in Spanish, especially the very open "a" sound, is nearly impossible to replicate in English, but in general I tried to get a sense of the tone of the Spanish and mimic it as much as possible in the English. Of course there were many little sacrifices made along the way, but I also think some interesting new moments were created during the process of translation. 

How do you feel translating fiction to poetry to essays differs in form, aesthetic, artistic premise, socio-political impact, self-discovery, etc.?
Every genre is a little bit different, of course, but the process is more or less the same. If you're translating poetry, you're writing poetry in English. If you're translating fiction, you're writing fiction in English. The mindset, the form, the aesthetic might change with the genre, but artistically speaking I have just as much fun translating poetry as a I do translating a story or a novel. Personally, I prefer to translate anything in the first person because I like to mimic the speaker. Of course with politically charged writing, the socio-political impact might not be the same, but I think that can occur just as much in poetry as it can in an essay.

¿Cómo ve la recepción de la poesía latinoamericana contemporanea en los países de habla inglesa, con respeto a las normas que todavía existen en sus tradiciones poéticas?  (Por ejemplo, ¿cree que el odio que profesaba Pound a las abstracciones y su necesidad de imágenes concretas en la poesía todavía existe?)

Translation: How do you perceive the reception of contemporary Latin American poetry in English-speaking countries, given the norms that still exist regarding their poetic tradition?  (For example, do you think Pound's professed hatred of abstractions and the need for concrete images in poetry are still issues?)

Poetry doesn't have a very large audience, in general, but I think it has a very open-minded one. My guess is that most people who read poetry are just as happy to pick up a book of poems in translation as they are to pick up one written in English. That's just a guess, though.

Otro aspecto de ésta es la resistencia que en cierto sentido existe contra lo político como tema poético (y la idea que lo político va en contra de la estética).  ¿Ha tenido que lidiar con esto en sus traducciones?

Translation: Another aspect of this is the resistance that exists to a certain extent against the political as a poetic theme (and the idea that the political is in opposition to aesthetics).  Have you had to struggle with this in your translations?

I don't really think about any of that when I translate. My task is just to carry the writing from one language to another, so if the original work is political, my translations will be, too. It is interesting, though, to think about how the reception of the work might differ given the different political backgrounds of the readers. For example, an American reading about the disappeared would most likely not be affected in the same way as an Argentine reading about desaparecidos

¿Qué piensa sobre la confusión o disonancia que puede existir entre el género de la poesía "confesional" (y autobiográfica) de los Estados Unidos y lo que Bolaño está haciendo en su obra?  Es decir, ¿sería un error calificarla como confesional o autobiográfica (aunque algunos poemas son autobiográficos)?  ¿Cuáles son los desafíos o dificultades al enfrentarse a un contexto poético tan distinto al original?

Translation: What do you think about the confusion or dissonance that could possibly exist between the genre of "confessional" (and autobiographical) poetry in the United States and what Bolaño is doing in his work?  In other words, would it be a mistake to classify his work as confessional or autobiographical (although some poems are autobiographical)?  What are the challenges or difficulties in facing a poetic context so different from that of the original?

Again, that's not something that every really concerned me. I think that each writer, whether or not they find themselves lumped into a tradition like "confessional," is an individual creating his or her own work. All writing is autobiographical to a certain extent, and Bolaño is a master of blurring the lines between fiction and reality. If there's one lesson that can be taken away from his work, it's that you should never try to classify it as anything other than Bolaño's work. 

Seamus Heaney tiene un ensayo ("The Impact of Translation" / "El impacto de la traducción") donde habla de cómo la poesía traducida al inglés puede desafiar y enriquecer las tradiciones poéticas de países de habla inglesa.  ¿Cuáles son algunas de las maneras en que la poesía de Bolaño puede influenciar estas tradiciones? 

Translation: Seamus Heaney has written an essay ("The Impact of Translation") where he talks about how poetry translated into English can challenge and enrich English-language poetic traditions.  What are some of the ways in which Bolaño's poetry can influence these poetic traditions?

Bolaño is a master at creating a mood in his work, be it fiction or poetry. It is a hard thing to pin down, but somehow he is able to transmit a feeling to the reader. Because this is a sort of cumulative effect - created by his use of imagery, his language, the structure and pace of his narrative, his characters and stories, etc. - it is something that carries across rather seamlessly in translation. Oddly enough, it's something that doesn't actually need to be translated, and I think that might be one of the reasons his writing has had such success in so many different languages.

Process-wise, do you feel it necessary to travel to the places Bolaño worked from and was informed by? Do you read what he read before beginning the work in addition to reading his work? Eat what he ate? Smell what he smelled?
Bolaño is an interesting case because he traveled a lot and lived in several different countries. I've never been to Chile or Mexico, but I have spent a fair amount of time in Barcelona. It certainly helps to have a sense of the place, but I don't think it's necessary at all. Because he uses so many regional terms, it is important to have a sense of the language spoken in those different countries, but thanks to the Internet, most of that research can be done from anywhere. I do try to read what he read, in part because I think we have similar taste in literature and I appreciate his indirect recommendations, but also because it is important to understand the references he makes in order to translate them accurately.

Edith Grossman once said something to the effect of, 'the translator wants to be as close to the original as possible,' the original work should be coming through the translator. Do you feel differently or similarly in this way? Further, how much work studying the history of Bolaño's work have you done. Infrarealism, Surrealism, etc?
Well, I think it's a bit more complicated. You can be 'close' to the original work by doing a very literal translation for meaning, or you can be 'close' by trying to recreate the poetic effect of the original. Personally, I try to do both, which leads to constant compromises and sacrifices, and is an entirely impossible and imperfect endeavor. That's probably why I enjoy it, though. 

I've done a fair amount of research into Infrarealism, but mostly out of historical curiosity, not because I think it has any effect on my translations. Although there are still people who call themselves Infrarealists, as far as Bolaño was concerned the group essentially disappeared when he and Mario Santiago (his best friend, and the model for Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives) moved to Europe in 1977. "In reality," he explained in an interview, "because Infrarealism was Mario's madness and my own madness."

¿Cómo se manifiesta el infrarealismo en la poesía de Bolaño?

Translation: How does infrarealism come across in Bolaño's poetry?

In her article “Bolaño in Mexico” (The Nation, April 2007), Carmen Boullosa cites part of the Infrarealist Manifesto that says, “Risk is always elsewhere. The true poet is always leaving himself behind. Never too long in the same place, like guerrilla fighters, flying saucers, and the white eyes of lifers. LEAVE IT ALL BEHIND, AGAIN. GO OUT ON THE ROADS.” I would say that’s a pretty good description of how Infrarealism comes across in Bolaño’s poetry.

In Bolano's Infrarealism Manifesto, he says, "Their constant collision gives life to the forms Infrarrealismo: THE EYE OF THE TRANSITION." Do you feel that good translations should show no transition at all between the original text and the new work, or is the original text and the translated text one and the same. Thus making the translator invisible and the reader the eye, or is the translator herself/himself the eye?
Any translation, especially of poetry, reflects the translator’s own interpretation of the work. There are so many decisions to be made while translating, so many words that need to be made either more specific or more vague when rendered in English, it would be almost impossible for two translators to produce the exact same translation. I think of translation as an entirely different art form. It takes shape within the framework of the original, but it is ultimately the creation of the translator. Ezra Pound’s translations are a good example of testing the limits of that framework to create something entirely new.

¿Cuáles son algunos de sus hábitos en el proceso de la traducción?  ¿Prefiere crear borradores escritos o digitados?  ¿Qué hace para poder ver la obra con una nueva perspectiva?

Translation: What are some of your habits in the translation process?  Do you prefer creating drafts by hand or typing them?  What do you do in order to look at the work with a new perspective?

After trying all different methods, I’ve found that I prefer to print out a copy of the original text with a lot of space between lines, and then pencil in a draft as I read. I try to do this as quickly as possible in order to replicate the sound and rhythm of the original. If there’s something I don’t know how to translate, I leave a space. If there’s a word I want to research further, I circle it. If there’s more the one way/manner/mode/style of translating a word, I write all of them. Next, I type this draft and try to fill in the blanks and make decisions. Once this is completed, depending on the project and how much time I have to finish it, I put it away for a long time. The longer I leave it alone, the better my perspective is when I return to it. Translation is a never-ending and imperfect task. I’ve never actually felt “finished” with a translation. There is always something that could be changed somehow.

¿Quiénes son algunos de sus poetas favoritos?

Translation: Who are some of your favorite poets?

Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, C.D. Wright, Bob Dylan, Nicanor Parra, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Julio Cortázar, Cesar Vallejo, Tomaž Šalamun

Have you ever tried to write poetry yourself, in addition to translating?
Of course. I love to write, and I think translation is one of the best ways of honing your own writing skills.

What advice can you offer the young translator?
If you don’t like what you’re translating, it can be one of the most torturous and frustrating things you will ever do, so make sure you find a text that you really love. Translate it, put it away, translate it again. Be creative and enjoy the possibilities of translation before trying to produce any sort of polished work. If you want more practical advice and links to some helpful resources, you can visit my website (

Published Mar 12, 2010   Copyright 2010 Nicolle Elizabeth

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